Proverbs: Lean Not on Your Own Understanding
Proverbs 3 begins with a series of six statements and six blessings. The famous one, we’ll see, fits well with the surrounding context. It begins,
My son, do not forget my teaching,
but keep my commands in your heart,
2for they will prolong your life many years
and bring you peace and prosperity.
1. Long life, peace and prosperity. In Proverbs 1-9, “life” occurs in Proverbs 2:19; 3:2, 18, 22; 4:10, 13, 22, 23; 5:6; 6:23; 8:35; and 9:11. It occurs 21 times in chapters 10-31. The overall message of Proverbs is that the wise have longer, peaceful, prosperous lives, whereas the wicked or foolish die. In a time when there were no hospitals or prescription drugs, knowing how to live the right way mattered. We take for granted the ability to extend our earthly existence with a variety of vivifications, none of them found in this book of wisdom. What if we just sought to live out the teaching of this book? How much better would our quality of life be? Verses 3-12 give us a picture of this quality kind of life.
3Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
bind them around your neck,
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4Then you will win favor and a good name
in the sight of God and humankind.
2. Favor and a good name. These are the same things God uses to describe Himself in Exodus 34:6 and two of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And, they are really the essence of the father’s teaching. To bind them around the neck and write them on the tablet of your heart meant was proof that you had chosen to walk this way, and it was the same kind of imagery used for the Law elsewhere (Deut. 6:6-9; 30:14).
These verses seem to contradict the rest of Scripture. Do we really win God’s favor, or has He freely given it to us (grace)? Other translations render this “find favor” rather than “win favor.” That distinction is key: a life of love and faithfulness, of God-likeness, begets favor. And yet, even the ability to love is a gift from God. This verse suggests to me prevenient grace at work. God gives us favor, enabling us to love, and we continue to find more and more of His grace as we do so.
5Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
6in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
3. Straight paths. We memorize these verses without the ones around them. What if we didn’t? We’d see that the command to trust in the Lord refers to trusting that He had the ability to back up the father’s wisdom and teaching. The son is really in a precarious, pivotal time of life with a decision: Do I listen to my dad, and through him, God, or do I listen to foolish, wicked friends? It required trust in God. It meant avoiding the temptation to depend on their simple understanding of how the world works.
“Lean on” is found elsewhere in Scripture, and refers to relying on the Lord rather than others (Isaiah 10:20), relying on horses rather than the Lord (Isaiah 31:1), and relying on the Lord in battle and being victorious (2 Chronicles 13:18), among other things. Acknowledging God in all things leads to straight paths, the third blessing for those who are counting. The opposite of straight paths can be found throughout Proverbs. Just looking at chapter 2, we see the foolish and wicked have left straight paths to walk in dark ways (2:13) and are on crooked paths (2:15). The adulterous woman’s path leads to the spirits of the dead (2:18). Here we find that God is the One who straightens our path.
7Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.
8This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
4. Health. This is similar to leaning on our own understanding. Proverbs 26:12 says there is no hope for those who are wise in their own eyes. Ouch! Isaiah 5:21 says, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and clever in their own sight.” Rather, we are to add fear to trust. Fearing God and shunning evil are a summary of the right way to live. Job was said to have done both (Job 1:1). We don’t get to mix God and evil, which has become a word that defines the worst kinds of sins in our culture today, but which would have encompassed any way of living opposed to God. The result? Good health, as in verse 2. While today, we might balk at this because we see plenty of people reveling in evil while enjoying good health, this can also be as simple as comparing photos of people, the same age, one who is addicted to substances and one who isn’t.
9Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
10then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine.
5. Plenty of food and drink. If you have been brought prosperity by God (v. 2), then you need to know how to use it. This proverb directs the son to bring the first fruits, the first and best of his harvest, to God as an offering. Like the practice of tithing today, in a culture where wealth was measured in one’s land, crops, animals, and other assets rather than in coin, this was the practice that conditioned one’s heart to trust in God to provide. It honored God by letting Him know you relied on Him to bring enough harvest that season. The promise here is of abundance. While it seems counterintuitive to give the best portion away, it is a tangible act of trusting in the Lord with all one’s heart. If we want to have more than enough, we must first give away our most precious and best possessions.
11My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline,
and do not resent his rebuke,
12because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in (Proverbs 3:1-12, TNIV).
6. Delighted discipline. How might God discipline or rebuke a person? Was it simply through hearing the Law read aloud? Did they have a concept of the Holy Spirit ministering to our spirit? Was it through elders? Waltke suggests that discipline came in the form of sickness or other suffering, which an Israelite would’ve interpreted as God’s instrument of correction. It was a wake-up call. Wisdom says that we should not be disgruntled when life gets tough. Wisdom says, as C.S. Lewis, that pain is God’s megaphone, His loud call to turn around, repent, and awaken to our need of Him. Discipline is a sign of the Father’s delight in us, not a sign that He is displeased and disappointed in us.